As one of the posts highlighting the 2014 Morris Award finalists, we are pleased to share an interview with Evan Roskos, author of Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets. In this book, sixteen year old James Whitman struggles with depression, using his love of poet Walt Whitman and the advice from his internal therapist (a pigeon named Dr. Bird) to get through each day. James is a poetic soul who readers will root for.
Congratulations on being a Morris finalist! What was your reaction on hearing the news? Will you be attending ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia? Going to the Morris Award program and presentation?
My reaction was full of numb and contradictory impulses: really? am I? finalist? Me? Well, of course! I’m great! No. Wait. I’m not that great. Especially not nearly as great as other debuts. I should re-read that announcement and be sure… These thoughts continued in circles for about four days. Ultimately it’s a great great feeling that validates the work I put in on Dr. Bird; it validates my agent Sara Crowe’s hard work; and it validates Margaret Raymo and the Houghton Mifflin publicity team’s commitment to the book. Being a finalist is truly something I never expected but will celebrate for weeks. When they announce the winner I will cheer and huzzah for them. I’m psyched to have Dr. Bird mentioned with the other great novels. I will be at the Morris Award program and presentation but not at ALA Midwinter, even though it’s right over the Walt Whitman bridge for me. (Okay, technically I’d take the Ben Franklin to get there, but I couldn’t resist…)
James is such a smart guy, it’s no wonder that Dr. Bird’s advice is often quite good. But why a pigeon? What made you choose that form for his own internal therapist?
This might be the best way to answer: why not a pigeon? More precisely though, I wanted James to have a kind interior life, one that didn’t seem weak because he was so weak in social situations, so easily frazzled. So, when I started writing I knew James was going to speak in a Whitman-flavored voice and that meant natural elements had to be profound and inspiring to him. That combined with my natural desire to find interesting internal voices — ways to avoid having a character talk to themselves. I love writing dialogue and that just translated into a bird. Pigeons, of all birds, are kind of funny and seem dopey but are actually quite smart.
I read that, unlike James, you did not really enjoy Walt Whitman when you were in high school. When did you come to appreciate his work? How is Whitman important to you now?
Whitman made no sense to me as a high school reader. I liked more precise poetry. (Also, I read mostly horror and science fiction novels until my Junior year of high school.) In particular, I carried around a copy of The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a Modern book of interrelated poems about people living, loving, hating, and dying in a rural area. Very fascinating. Very un-Whitman like in terms of style, but absolutely like him in terms of its focus on the important connections between humans. As an undergraduate I discovered that there were multiple versions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and became fascinated with the changes he made. Then, as a graduate student, I read Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography by David S. Reynolds and that book helped decode Whitman in a way that made sense to me. It didn’t hurt that I had a naturally prose-like poetic style of my own, so I had lots in common with Whitman before I really understood him from a scholarly perspective. Really, though, I find Whitman so exuberant. He’s so much fun to read out loud! He finds the best in everything, and even when he’s intolerably repetitive there’s something admirable about his dedication. I never even questioned that James would love Whitman. Much like I obsessed over certain musicians and bands as a kid, James obsesses over Whitman.
It’s fun to read the book reviews on your blog, YAWP! What is your favorite book/author? And I ask this knowing (as your website says) that your answers may depend on the phase of the moon.
Ha! Thanks for reading my blog, first of all! And, yes, my answers do change. My favorite author — the person who I enjoy reading, is the best way to think about this — is Don DeLillo. He writes these postmodern novels that explore American culture and its various absurdities. I wrote my MA thesis on his work and still willingly read him, so I must love his work, right? I also have to mention John Steinbeck, who was the first “not-horror, not-sci-fi” writer I read with any joy. I loved reading in HS but didn’t always love the classics. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was a major major experience for me. I’ve read it multiple times and actually have the itch to read it again. I tend to fall deep into authors — I read as many of their novels as I can (see also: Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, John A. Williams, Rick Moody….).
How would you sound your own barbaric YAWP?
Hmmm. Aside from writing, I sound my own yawp when I go to karaoke. I’ve always loved to sing and I’ve played guitar since I was a teenager. So, singing, even though it’s not something I do often enough, would be my way to actually shout out over the roofs of the world. But, ultimately, it’s my writing that’s the more accurate representation of who I am as a person. And that’s what a yawp needs to be: an authentic shout.
What’s your next project? What can we look forward to next?
I have two projects I’m very excited about but no news on either front yet. I’m also keeping an eye on the progress of the film adaptation of Dr. Bird because, even though I can’t control it, I can send positive mental vibes towards both the producer and the screenwriter/director!
~ Geri Diorio, currently reading Notes from the Blender by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin
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